On move-in day as a Wharton freshman, Jane* asked her roommate Anne* if she wanted to share a fridge.
Anne’s response was unexpected — I have non-purging bulimia, she explained, and declined. Unlike purging bulimics, non-purging bulimics switch between periods of binge eating and strict dieting.
Whether the problem lies with the students themselves or their peers around them, eating concerns surround Penn students everyday, and they range from simple dietary regulations to clinical disorders.
“There’s a whole continuum from eating concerns and worries, which are milder, all the way to clinical levels of anorexia and bulimia,” Denise Lensky, the associate director of Counseling and Psychological Services, said.She added that eating disorders affect a “pretty sizeable portion of the population.”
For some, these concerns can be a continuation of attitudes or habits that existed prior to college, Lensky explained. For others, college can be the first encounter with such issues.
Prior to Penn, “I had never dealt with people who had eating disorders,” Jane said. “So, I was wary of how to address the topic and if it would be an issue.”
“College is challenging because for many, it’s the first time that they are completely on their own with regards to their eating,” Lensky said, explaining that the responsibility of doing their food shopping and providing their own meals can be a challenge for some students.
After making small changes to her diet and exercise habits the summer before her freshman year, Engineering sophomore Katie* realized that her habits had become detrimental.
“When I reached one of my lowest weights, I thought it might be sort of unhealthy, but I didn’t do anything to change it,” she said. “I sort of dismissed it during the school year.”
Away from home the following summer, Katie noticed increasingly unhealthy behaviors.
“I would pack my own lunch for work and eat a healthy breakfast, but purposely not pack a lot because I wouldn’t want to eat too much,” she recounted. “By 5 p.m., I would be starving, but sometimes I would ignore it and not eat much but the next morning I would be insanely hungry.”
This cycle led to occasional binging on small snack items, particularly on foods she had limited herself from eating.
“When [the opportunity to eat them] came by, it’d be like, last chance, and I would just eat until I was uncomfortably full,” she said. “Then I’d wonder what just happened, what am I going to do?”
Jane’s roommate’s binges would lead to severe symptoms of depression.
“She had binged one day, slept through two of her midterms and completely missed them,” Jane said, explaining Anne’s lowest point. In late October, Anne decided to take the year off to receive therapy.
Apart from the professional resources available at CAPS or Student Health Services, peers can help each other overcome eating concerns.
“Her biggest support system was her floor,” Jane said of her roommate. “We made sure someone took her to meals.”
Katie said reading blogs by people who had gone through similar experiences was helpful. Lensky said discussion-based eating concern groups can also provide support.
However, some students do not consider their concerns serious enough to talk about with their peers.
“I get a lot of students who come in for sessions specifically for anorexia or bulimia,” Student Health Services nutritionist Sydney Nitzkorski wrote in an e-mail. “This is not to say that anorexia and bulimia are more prevalent in the Penn population compared to unwanted weight gain, but that students with these eating disorders are more likely to sign up for ongoing nutrition sessions.”
Yet, “the dread of [weight gain] is way worse than any reality,” Lensky said.
Before worrying about the “Freshman 15” or the “College 50,” Nitzkorski advised, “getting back in touch with the true sensation of physical hunger will give you incredibly helpful cues about managing your weight.”
The National Institute of Mental Health cited women as comprising 85-95 percent of those with anorexia or bulimia and 65 percent of those with binge-eating disorder. But Lensky also stressed that women — particularly “accomplished and bright” Penn women — stay wary of and are more “outraged” about the pressures to be thin.
* Names have been changed to protect the identities of those interviewed.Comments powered by Disqus
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